around the bar
August 9, 2012

Developing a New Impression of Lawyers

The panel discussion “Not in My Playground: Civility and Professionalism in Your Workplace” on Aug. 3 at the ABA Annual Meeting focused on how to dismantle unflattering longtime stereotypes about the legal profession.  Panelists said it will take time and a collective effort to do so.

“The stereotype [is] of the ambulance chaser, someone who is greedy and wants to make money at someone else’s expense, arrogant, obnoxious, knows it all.  These are really embarrassing stereotypes for all of us, for which we all should feel responsible,” said Diane I. Smason, a supervisory trial attorney with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Chicago.  “I do.  When I meet people who are not lawyers and they ask me what I do, I often feel the need to say, ‘I’m a lawyer, but you know, I’m one of the nice ones, one of the good ones.’”

Smason said it is time to develop new impressions of lawyers.  She said, “We can and do have respect for the justice system and for all people we come across in our work.”

William A. Widmer III, a principal at Carmell Charone Widmer Moss & Barr in Chicago, said it is important for new associates to learn early on that clients are not interested in their toughness, but their successful track record.  “You are successful by conducting yourself in a manner that advances the clients’ interests,” Widmer said.  “I don’t see how you advance the clients’ interests by being a jerk. You have to be very careful in picking your shots.”

Donald L. Sapir, a partner at Sapir & Frumkin LLP in White Plains, N.Y., said experience is a good teacher of professionalism and civility.  “I very much wish I could take back some of the things I did 30 years ago that I would have handled differently had those things arisen today,” Sapir said.

Sapir agreed with an audience member who said litigation is a hard way to make a living, but added that if you conduct yourself in a way “to be proud of,” it will be an easier living.  “To a large extent, professionalism and civility is an extension of the golden rule,” added Sapir, who is also president of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers, an organization for labor and employment lawyers who “exemplify, by their conduct, the highest level of civility and professionalism.”

Kathlyn E. Noecker, a partner at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP in Minneapolis, said establishing a culture of civility in the workplace should be methodical.  She gave five key steps in establishing such an environment:

  1. Set a tone at the top in which employees know that they can talk about tough situations.
  2. Communicate frequently.  The use of newsletters can be helpful.
  3. Ensure that employees know what is expected of them.  Initiate a training program, if you don’t have one already.
  4. Perform evaluations, assessing how employees interact both internally and externally.
  5. Establish consequences for poor behavior.  Enforce the rules to the point of financial hardship (sometimes to the point of asking someone to leave).

Panelists also provided various tips to encourage civility inside the workplace and when dealing with opposing counsel.

Being professional at work:

  • Set the tone of professionalism and civility in the office.  Everyone, for example, should be entitled to his or her own opinion without being attacked.
  • Have open discussions with lawyers and support staff about professionalism and civility.
  • Be a role model for less-experienced lawyers by exemplifying good behavior in the office and in the courtroom.

Dealing with opposing counsel civilly:

  • If you are concerned that the opposing counsel will misrepresent what you say, have a second person in on the conversation.
  • Reinforce your verbal conversations with opposing counsel in writing.  Email has made this easier.
  • Be direct with the other side.
  • Do not respond to opposing counsel with the same negative actions.  Try to rise above their actions and remain civil.
  • Use courts as a last resort.  Make an effort to resolve the case through arbitration or mediation.
  • Agree to schedule extensions, because you never know when you will have an emergency and may need one.
  • Do not take shots at the other lawyer in a brief.  Provide the facts and the law.

The panel was sponsored by the Section of Labor and Employment Law.  Max G. Brittain Jr., a partner at Schiff Hardin LLP in Chicago, moderated the session.

Learn More About:  Annual Meeting 2012Employment LawLabor Law